Advertising Research
Qualitative Research

The Experts Weigh in on Advertising Research at ARF Conference

Sarah Jane Johnson

The Advertising Research Foundation is arguably the world’s leading organization for the study of brand communications effectiveness, and its annual conference in New York is a forum for the biggest players in the world of branding to share “best practices”. As a market researcher who specializes in brand communications, I had been wanting to go to the ARF Conference for years. This March 20-21, I finally made the pilgrimage to New York. It was well worth it, with big payoffs in the form of key insights about emotion and creativity in advertising, which I will explain below.


The event was a veritable Who’s Who of the marketing world with representatives from dozens of blue chip corporations and all the leading media companies and quant houses. In terms of content it was fascinating both for what it discussed and did not discuss, and for who presented and who did not. Although the ARF is positioned as the leader of all things advertising research, the focus is pretty much exclusively on quantitative research, and within that focus, on copy testing and media planning. Nielsen and its subsidiaries dominated the presentations, while other global ad research firms such as Ipsos ASI, Kantar Millward Brown, Brain Juicer and Hall & Partners had surprisingly low profiles. As a primarily qualitative practitioner, whose interest is in helping develop creative ideas rather than “test” them, I was in a tiny minority of attendees.

The conference emphasized a number of key themes when it came to best practices in advertising effectiveness: the latest techniques in emotional measurement (neurological, facial recognition, biometrics etc.); optimizing creative executions to work on different digital platforms; strategies to overcome ad blocking.

Interestingly, almost every presentation I attended stressed the importance of great creative ideas; one speaker noted that “good creative accounts for 65% of sales related performance”. Yet at the same time, almost every presentation discussed how to assess the creative only once it has already been turned into a finished product (or at least an animatic). How to spot and nurture an idea at an earlier stage of development does not seem to be a focus of research at this conference. Nicole Hartnett and Rachel Kennedy of the legendary Ehrenberg-Bass Institute gave a presentation that concluded that only 51% of advertising decision-makers were correctly able to identify a successful advertisement (notably, those in insights roles were slightly more likely to get it right than marketing managers) but they did not offer any suggestions about how to improve one’s judgement.

Two presentations did provide some insights into “how advertising works” (and therefore provided some insights into the critical components that must go into an ad well before it is turned into a finished spot). In “What’s So Emotional About Emotional Ads”, David Brandt and Linghan Wang of Nielsen and Nielson Catalina discussed a study indicating that different advertising styles had different advertising effects on different targets. Results showed that highly rational ads performed better loyal heavy users, while emotional ads performed better with new category buyers. They also showed that rational ads performed better in terms of recall (not surprising considering that conscious memory is more rational than emotional) whereas emotional ads appeared to perform better for long term sales. An additional important finding was that emotional ads that performed well in market tended to perform worse on surveys, suggesting that surveys are not an optimal assessment approach for an emotional style advertising. In another presentation about the role of emotions in advertising, “Improve Ad Effectiveness Through Emotional Triggers”, Pat Pellegrini of Simmons Research discussed how advertising content can be coded with “emotional driver tags” that “explain 76% of variance in Nielsen ratings”. Pellegrini argued that different brands are associated with different emotional driver tags, and that some should be leveraged and others avoided. He also suggested that ads could be developed from the very beginning to include critical psychological triggers. This is an interesting build on the existing view that consistent deployment of brand assets is critical to advertising impact and actually provides some potential direction for more effective creative development.

While emotions were certainly recognized as a critical aspect of brand communications, all the emphasis at the conference was on their measurement via high cost, high tech methods like measuring brain waves or micro-expression analysis. These approaches are intriguing, but, as yet, no one has cracked how to correlate the external evidence of someone’s brain lighting up with the actual thought processes of the individual who is reacting. It would have been interesting to see some presentations on implicit measurement approaches that provide insight into consumers’ underlying associations, motivations, beliefs and attitudes; approaches that circumvent both the notorious unreliability of self-reporting, and the opacity of neuro-feedback reporting.

The art and science of developing a successful ad has been the subject of enquiry for over a century. For anyone who participates in advertising development, it is critical to be deeply informed on all aspects of this enquiry. Best practices in quant research and innovations in neuro-science strongly inform my thinking as a qualitative practitioner. I would love, however, to see qualitative research, and its unique contribution to the creative development process, become the subject of serious study by illustrious bodies like the Advertising Research Foundation.